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The race to be Maricopa County's top prosecutor oozes national politics

In Maricopa County, national politics ooze from the race for top prosecutor.

The Republican stokes fear that her challenger would turn metro Phoenix into a sanctuary for illegal border crossers. The Democrat relentlessly ties her opponent to the confirmation of a U.S. Supreme Court justice who voted to overturn the right to abortion.

Immigration and the end of Roe v. Wade are important issues. But they’re not the focus of this story on who will be the next Maricopa County attorney.

Longtime local prosecutor Rachel Mitchell is the Republican nominee.

“This race, unlike many other races, will have an immediate and profound impact on people's quality of life, if certain policies are not followed, and if police are not supported,” said Mitchell.

The Democrat challenger promises to hold police accountable. Julie Gunnigle is asking voters to oust Mitchell.

“Where we diverge drastically is the vision of what that job needs to look like and what justice looks like in our county,” said Gunnigle.

At the core of myriad disagreements is the condition of the huge prosecutorial agency they both want to manage. Gunnigle often the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office is crooked.

“It's not your line attorneys that we're talking about. This is a corruption in leadership issue,” said Gunnigle. 

Mitchell says it’s not true now. The office needed an experienced prosecutor and strong leader, which she says is her.

Yes, Mitchell acknowledges bad decisions were made before she was appointed at the end of April, like bogus gang charges against protesters.

No, she doesn’t think a federal civil rights investigation of Phoenix police should be expanded to the County Attorney’s Office.

“I don't think it's appropriate in this situation. This situation has been cleaned up,” said Mitchell. 

Mitchell anchors her platform on restoring trust with victims, the community and law enforcement. She also presents herself to voters as the only choice to stop hordes of violent criminals from exploiting bleeding heart policies found in cities like San Francisco and Chicago.  

“I'm not here to crush people that a hand up could accomplish getting them back in the community, but I am here to keep the community safe from people that would do it harm,” said Mitchell.

Transforming the office to cut into Arizona’s high incarceration rate is central to Gunnigle’s campaign. Her website has plans for sentencing reform, confronting systemic racism and prosecuting crimes against the most vulnerable.

But Gunnigle pushes back on being called a progressive because she says her platform is an effort to cut spending on keeping people in prison.

“You know, in Arizona what we are facing is profoundly different than the rest of the nation because we are so out of step,” said Gunnigle.

Not appearing on Gunnigle’s issues page are the words gun violence, which she would treat as a public health crisis to identify why people commit crimes.

“And when you look at the root cause of gun violence, again, and again, it's a lack of economic opportunity, a lack of treatment in mental health issues, and a lack of treatment, when it comes to addiction,” said Gunnigle.

Mitchell has focused on gun crime. Her prosecutors joined an ongoing crackdown with federal authorities and Phoenix police. She also changed policy to require prison time in plea offers for certain offenses involving firearms.

“That pertains to, for example, aggravated assaults, armed robberies and felons in possession of a firearm,” said Mitchell.

Meaning it does not apply to the case of a former state prisons director accused of disorderly conduct with a gun and illegally shooting one. Charles Ryan was arrested following a standoff with Tempe police at his home in January.

“But technically, those charges are not encompassed in this. And as far as any sort of plea agreements I can’t really talk about that because it’s still an active case,” said Mitchell.

For Gunnigle, it’s evidence of a double-standard.

“There's absolutely a two tiered system of justice in our county that holds the wealthy, the powerful, the well connected and the police to a different standard than everybody else,” said Gunnigle.

Ryan could go to prison if he’s convicted in a trial, which most likely would not start until after voters choose who will be Maricopa County attorney through 2024.

More stories from KJZZ

Matthew Casey has won Edward R. Murrow awards for hard news and sports reporting since he joined KJZZ as a senior field correspondent in 2015.